George Brant
Gate Theatre Notting Hill

Lucy Ellinson as the pilot Credit: Iona Firouzabadi
Lucy Ellinson at the pilot Credit: Iona Firouzabadi

A woman in uniform stands alone in a large cube of gauze whilst rock music pumps through the speakers in the theatre. With audience sat on three sides of the small playing area, there's nowhere for her to escape their eyes, no space for contrived theatricality. This is a relationship of two sides, though she surveys her audience cooly before she launches them into her story; into the world of her grey cube.

Confident, flippant, cocky and strangely likeable, she loves her job, she loves her uniform and she loves being up in the blue. Her life on the ground and her life in the sky are almost entirely separate and the sheer thrill of being a fighter pilot propels her through the early part of her narrative.

Nothing lasts, however, and when an unexpected pregnancy brings her to the ground she discovers that motherhood, marriage and work is a tricky balance. Even more difficult when you're a pilot stuck on the ground unwillingly being retrained to fly a drone, part of the war but at seemingly safe distance—fighting but without the threat of death.

This one-woman show is a brilliant showcase for Lucy Ellinson and allows her to hold the audience spellbound as she unflinchingly meets their eye. Her character is a nameless but proud pilot, a mother, a wife and American citizen. These identifiers are absolutely key to whom she is and how she interacts with the world but, when they start to overlap, life becomes fraught and what was once solid begins to crumble.

The script is a marathon but a perfectly paced one; the pilot’s growing isolation and paranoia interrupted by mundane moments of levity and her own awareness of the situation. Sarcasm features prominently and, despite the subject matter, Grounded is full of wit and numerous laughs.

Christopher Hayden's direction is exact and rhythmic. Not a single beat is missed as her casual swagger becomes jerky and stiff; not a single line wasted as her quips become less cocksure.

It might sound unflattering to describe George Brant’s script as sparse when the pilot’s life is communicated so vividly, but its stripped-back style is a huge feature of the show. By concentrating solely on the fate of our nameless lead, the larger political and philosophical questions lurk, unaddressed and unanswered. The brutality and hypocrisy of war are themes which loom but watching the pilot, contained in her gauze box, the audience can only see the effects through her lens, through her drone camera.

Compelling and utterly human, Grounded is an uncompromising glimpse into the cold world of modern warfare and the psychological effects that a ‘risk free’ mission can bring.

Reviewer: Amy Yorston

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